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A Weight Gain Theory of Everything

By now you’ve probably heard about a new class of drugs called semaglutides. They were recently approved by the FDA for weight loss. In clinical trials, participants lost astonishing amounts of weight. And so long as they continued taking the drug, they kept it off. Additionally, people taking semaglutides dramatically lowered their risk for heart disease, diabetes, and numerous types of cancer.

Whether or not these drugs remain cost prohibitive for many people (they currently run $15,000 per year) is yet to be seen. The same goes for long-term side effects, though similar drugs have been used safely for over a decade.

My interest here is not in weight loss, per se, but rather in the dramatic impact these medications have and the mechanism by which they work: decreasing appetite and food cravings in the brain.

On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the obesity neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet spoke eloquently about the evolutionary mismatch. In short, for well over ninety-nine percent of our species’ history we lived amidst scarcity. Abundance is a recent phenomenon, and even newer is a science that allows people to engineer the most enticing foods—along with a billion dollar industry that profits from it. As a result, the majority of people in America find themselves overweight or obese.

(Are there other factors? Yes. But nobody serious denies the central importance of the evolutionary mismatch and food engineering.)

Consider another major social ill that is also driven by an evolutionary mismatch, one that we at The Growth Equation have been writing and podcasting about extensively: the attention economy.

It’s the same story as food. Our brains did not evolve to contend with the behavioral engineering that drives the entire internet, news media, entertainment industry, and beyond. Just like our bodies are being overwhelmed by scientifically processed foods, our brains are being overwhelmed by scientifically processed content and platforms—which have perhaps an even bigger profit incentive than big food. (After all, attention is a 24-7 opportunity. Don’t just take it from me. The executive chairman of Netflix recently said their biggest competitor is sleep.)

Obesity and the destruction of attention are two of the biggest long-term public health crises we face today. The former mainly affects physical health, the latter mental health. Both impact society’s ability to flourish and make progress on issues that matter most. And their mechanics are strikingly similar.

Another fascinating parallel is that epidemiological studies show a correlation between lower socioeconomic status and overweight or obesity. The leading drivers behind this correlation are twofold: first, nutrient dense, less processed foods tend to cost more than highly processed junk food; second, it takes (most people) willpower, energy, and planning to eat in a way that supports a healthy bodyweight; if you are working for minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet, that kind of willpower and energy is generally being used elsewhere. Neither of these factors are controversial amongst public health researchers.

The same dynamic is at play when it comes to attention. The ability to not be bombarded by advertisements and distractions is something you must increasingly pay for, whether it’s a premium version of an app without advertisements or a private school that doesn’t rely on advertising to support its sports facilities. In addition to the financial cost of protecting your attention, there is also a cognitive one. Thinking about what impacts your thinking and paying attention to how you pay attention probably aren’t top of mind for someone struggling to put food on the table.

Fortunately, I’ve never been financially insecure, but I have noticed that when I’m sleep deprived or stressed out about something in my life I am much more likely to mindlessly scroll on my devices. It’s the same thing at play: a diminishment of cognitive resources.

Semaglutides work on the gut-brain pathway to shunt the attractiveness of foods that are engineered to make us overeat. Perhaps one day we’ll have similar drugs for attention. But, as the neuroscientist Guyenet says, it’s kind of crappy to imagine a world where we design technologies that break us and then need to design additional technologies to treat that brokenness.

What about the argument that we’ll adapt to the attention economy? We didn’t adapt to food engineering so I’m not confident we’ll adapt to attention engineering, especially because both work on the same reward circuits in the brain. And if artificial intelligence is half as good as everyone says it will be, the tools at the behest of attention moguls will have made a nuclear advance.

What should we do?

I’ll start at the societal level, since I think it’s clear and simple. But that does not mean easy. Policy makers must identify areas where the evolutionary mismatch is at play—and where there is a massive profit incentive to exploit it—and then do something to regulate these industries.

Relying on willpower or self-discipline to make the right choice is foolish. The proof is in the pudding: just look at rates of overweight and obesity (food) and mental illness, loneliness, and conspiracy theories (attention). If the majority of people could overcome these problems on their own, well, they wouldn’t be massive problems. (And before you get political, these problems impact people on both the left and the right.)

On the individual level it’s extremely hard to win this game, for all the reasons mentioned above. But it makes no sense to wait for a magic-wand policy, and despair is never a good option.

To whatever extent you can, identify junk food and junk content (and other evolutionary mismatches) and do everything possible to create environments where these traps are less enticing. This might mean taking social media off your phone; not putting chips in your cupboard; never watching cable news; and so on. Different people will have different preferences (and abilities) to make these choices. It’s not about which one is best. It’s about doing the most you can in a way that is sustainable for you. While we push policy makers to improve the broader environment, we’ve got to do what we can to shape our own.

As I wrote about extensively in The Practice of Groundedness, most of us want to choose the brown rice over the candy, and not just when it comes to food but for everything in our lives. Shallow and superficial almost always feels better in the moment, but over the long haul deep and nourishing is the way to go. But it really is challenging when there’s a trillion dollar industrial complex luring us toward the superficial and shallow, and our best tools to fight it are free newsletters and twenty-four dollar books.

The last thing I’ll say is that these challenges are biopsychosocial and environmental. Our bodies, minds, social circles, and environments are far more entangled than most of us think.

As I wrote in The Practice of Groundedness, our solutions may start as inside games, but if they are to be sustainable, we almost always need to work outward from there. Share this with your friends. Develop a language for it in your workplaces, teams, and communities. Run for school board and city council. The more of us pounding this drum, the better.


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